Review of Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium by Bitmap Books

Makes a nice pair with the Commodore 64 volume.

Bitmap Books makes immensely lavish retro video game books for readers like me, who prefer pixels to photorealism. And you get a lot of pixilation in this volume. I could complain about the book’s blocky pools of color, how the format of the Atari’s graphics does not translate into recognizable shapes when you zoom in sometimes, but all design choices aside, this book is filled with useless but fascinating information related to the video game industry.

I would say only die hard retro video game fans will get anything out of this book. Considering that most ordinary gamers will not find the Atari’s stone age graphics impressive or even recognizable as interactive objects, but once you start reading about how the games were coded, how the technology worked, you will see how impressive the system was. Albeit, by the time they released the 7800 two years after their original release date, Nintendo had already taken over with its appealing NES, and Sega was about to change the industry as well. Atari became old hat because they wanted to rely on software rather than hardware. Porting over arcade games was all well and good, but by the eighties I think computer games and even Commodore were investing more in complex RPGs and longer games. Atari is known for Pacman, Donkey Kong, and other arcade-esque experiences. The console was so fantastically limited that it is really a miracle the programmers got anything resembling a video game out of their creative efforts on the console.

Nonetheless, you can’t deny that the innovations explicated in this volume will convince you that Atari was probably the most influential company in gaming during its reign. Due to absurd mismanagement, the company couldn’t keep up forever. You will learn about programmers’ methodologies, and hear their grievances about getting no credit for working on the game. It’s true that you won’t find any indication of who created the game on most Atari titles. Obviously, the industry has changed a lot. It’s incredible to me that Undertale and Minecraft exist and thrive today at the same time as EA Games – that is, creators working largely alone while other games are the product of hundreds of employees’ efforts.

For Bitmap, I would suggest printing the box art on one page and the in-game graphics on the other. The two-page spreads would be just as interesting on one page alone, while the box art is often so fantastic that it deserves more attention.

This is a collector’s item, but honestly I doubt I’ll ever play more than a handful of Atari games in my life. 

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